Late last week, Tim Armstrong, the chief executive officer of AOL, landed himself in a media firestorm when he held a town hall with employees to explain why he was paring their retirement benefits. After initially blaming Obamacare for driving up the company’s health care costs, he pointed the finger at an unlikely target: babies.
Specifically, my baby.
“Two things that happened in 2012,” Armstrong said. “We had two AOL-ers that had distressed babies that were born that we paid a million dollars each to make sure those babies were OK in general. And those are the things that add up into our benefits cost. So when we had the final decision about what benefits to cut because of the increased healthcare costs, we made the decision, and I made the decision, to basically change the 401(k) plan.”
Within hours, that quote was all over the Internet. On Friday, Armstrong’s logic was the subject of lengthy discussions on CNN, MSNBC, and other outlets. Mothers’ advocates scolded him for gross insensitivity. Lawyers debated whether he had violated his employees’ privacy. Health care experts noted that his accounting of these “million-dollar babies” seemed, at best, fuzzy.
Plenty of smart, witty people took to Twitter to express their outrage—or mock outrage. The phrase “distressed babies” became practically an inside joke, as in, “How many distressed babies does AOL pay this guy?” A few AOL employees made cracks like this: “I swear I didn't have any babies in 2012. Don't hate me for messing up your 401(k).”
For the record: It was me. I don’t work for AOL; my husband does. One of those “distressed babies” was our daughter. We pay our premiums for a family health plan through AOL, which is why we had coverage on the morning I woke up in acute pain, only five months into what had been a completely smooth pregnancy.
Late Saturday, Armstrong finally issued an apology in an email to employees: “On a personal note, I made a mistake and I apologize for my comments last week at the town hall when I mentioned specific healthcare examples.” He also announced that he would restore the old retirement savings plan. This is commendable, but the damage to my family had already been done.
Here is how we supposedly became a drain on AOL’s coffers. On Oct. 9, 2012, when I woke up in pain, my husband was at the airport about to board a flight for a work trip. I was home alone with our 1-year-old son and barely able to comprehend that I could be in labor. By the time I arrived at the hospital, my husband a few minutes behind, I was fully dilated and my baby’s heartbeat was slowing. Within 20 minutes, my daughter was delivered via emergency cesarean, resuscitated, and placed in the neonatal intensive care unit.
She weighed 1 pound, 9 ounces. Her skin was reddish-purple, bloody and bruised all over. One doctor, visibly shaken, described it as “gelatinous.” I couldn’t hold my daughter or nurse her or hear her cries, which were silenced by the ventilator. Without it, she couldn’t breathe.
That day, we were told that she had roughly a one-third chance of dying before we could bring her home. That she might not survive one month or one week or one day. She also had at least a one-third chance of being severely disabled, unable to ever lead an independent life.
As shell-shocked and stricken as we were, my husband and I were not oblivious to the staggering tolls, emotional and financial, attached to a baby like ours. Watching her tiny, battered body struggle to carry out the simplest functions, we couldn’t help wondering at what point the level of her suffering might outweigh the imperative to keep her alive at all costs.
For longer than I can bear to remember, we were too terrified to name her, to know her, to love her. In my lowest moments—when she suffered a brain hemorrhage, when her right lung collapsed, when she stopped breathing altogether one morning—I found myself wishing that I could simply mourn her loss and go home to take care of my strapping, exuberant, fat-cheeked son.
But the neonatologists also described my daughter as “feisty” and “amazing.” And over the next weeks, she fought for every minute of her young life, as did her doctors and nurses, and we could only strive to do the same.
My daughter had to spend three months in the NICU, dependent on many high-tech medical apparatuses and round-the-clock care. She endured more procedures than I can count: blood transfusions, head ultrasounds, the insertion of breathing tubes, feeding tubes, and a central line extending nearly to her heart.
Some commentators have questioned the implausibility of “million-dollar babies.” I have no expertise in health care costs, but I have a 3-inch thick folder of hospital bills that range from a few dollars and cents to the high six figures (before insurance adjustments). So even though it’s unlikely that AOL directly paid out those sums, I don’t take issue with Armstrong’s number.
I take issue with how he reduced my daughter to a “distressed baby” who cost the company too much money. How he blamed the saving of her life for his decision to scale back employee benefits. How he exposed the most searing experience of our lives, one that my husband and I still struggle to discuss with anyone but each other, for no other purpose than an absurd justification for corporate cost-cutting.